Sunday, February 28, 2016

Gene Luen Yang — By Conrad Jeong

In the spirit of Oscars weekend, it is interesting to note that Asians are one of the most underrepresented minorities in American culture, entertainment, and mass media. Their rare moments of screen time have been blemished by instances of typecasting, stereotyping, caricaturing, and even flat out yellowfacing (think M*A*S*H, The Interview, Piccadilly, Breakfast at Tiffany's, etc). In recent years, however, the representation of Asians in media have been gradually improving thanks to the work of diverse yet uniquely talented Asian American artists, such as Gene Luen Yang.

A second generation Chinese American cartoonist and graphic designer from California, Yang has become one of the most influential Asian American artists today. Despite his early interests and talents in art, he was encouraged by his parents to pursue a more "practical field," and ended up studying computer science throughout college. He has worked as a computer engineer and a computer science teacher, before launching a personal side project: a graphic novel titled American Born Chinese, which has come to greatly shape Asian American representation in society. Today, as the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Yang continues to work as a graphic novelist while also traveling the world to speak on issues regarding Asian American representation.

Published in 2006, American Born Chinese details the three distinct stories of Jin Wang, who moves to a new neighborhood only to discover that he is the only Asian American in school, Chin Kee, a personification of destructive stereotypes that plague the Asian American community, as well as Sun Wukong, a fabled monkey king of ancient Chinese mythologies who has become an iconic pop culture reference in East Asia. Their narratives weave together in the end into an unexpected, action-packed climax.

What is unique about this work is that it is one of very few cartoons that features Asians and Asian Americans as the main characters, dealing specifically with issues that afflict these communities. Despite the work as a whole being amateurish in artistic and technical merit, it also introduces for the first time a visual representation of Asian characters and communities to the world of cartooning, an art form that has long been heavily whitewashed. It ultimately answers the dilemma of drawing Asians in comic books without creating caricatures.

One of his more recent works published in 2014, The Shadow Hero follows a character known as the Green Turtle, taking place in a typical "masked hero" storyline. More importantly, however, this body of work directly inserts an Asian American identity into the whitewashed, myopic tradition of American comic lore. The idea was ultimately to give an Asian American audience a superhero that they can personally identify with. Furthermore, we can see that this cartoon features much more advanced composition than the previous through stylization, shading, layering, creative use of coloring, and a much more realistic capturing of details and expressions, truly highlighting the progress of Yang as a graphic artist.

Yang also recently began work as the head cartoonist for the graphic novel version of the famed animation series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. This work, following a series of other successful cartoons featuring Asian characters and culture (Samurai Jack, Jackie Chan Adventures, etc), has become one of the most internationally acclaimed animations to this very day. The notes on these two drafts of  potential covers above show the immense amount of attention to detail and composition that goes into creating something as seemingly simple as comic books.

The sequence above shows the process of transforming a preliminary sketch into a fully colored cartoon strip.

Ultimately, Gene Luen Yang has become a trailblazer for Asian and Asian American representation in media and art through his work as a cartoonist and graphic designer. His works have become the inspiration for the conception of new Asian characters in popular comic series such as Marvel and DC, as well as the celebration of new Hollywood TV series that feature the lives of Asian Americans such as Fresh Off the Boat.

Marshall, Dave. 2012. Making of a Cover - Avatar the Last Airbender. Dark Horse. Web.
Yang, Gene Luen. 2006. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second Books.
Yang, Gene Luen. 2014. The Shadow Hero. New York: First Second Books.
Yang, Jeff. 2012. Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology. New York: New Press.

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